Community, Diversity and Conflict Among Schoolteachers: The Ties That Blind
reviewed by Ernest Rose - 2003
Title: Community, Diversity and Conflict Among Schoolteachers: The Ties That Blind
Author(s): Betty Achinstein
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807741744, Pages: 179, Year: 2002
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Excitement at the prospect of building a transformative community of teachers, students, and parents at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Chicago led Betty Achinstein to investigate the role of conflict in educators’ notions of community. Early on, Achinstein seemed willing to accept community building in schools as a potent model for reform. She admits to being idealistic and naive about the development of community and the effects of community on improving the environment of schools. Although she had not anticipated levels and functions of conflict in community-building and implementation, she soon became intrigued with the ways conflict emerged, was acknowledged or denied, and managed. We can be grateful that Achinstein decided to study conflict in the context of community at two middle schools in California for she has written an insightful account of the teachers in these schools and the ways in which they dealt with diversity and conflict in their pursuit of community.
Achinstein sets the stage for her case studies with a thorough, yet efficient review of literature on the community movement in educational reform. When first introduced, the concept of community building in schools was seen as a major step in improving the climate of schools and, by consequence, teaching and learning. Thus, “community” became a trendy slogan for school improvement and joined the ranks of movements that would lead to improvements in K-12 education. Little was said about the ups and downs of communities and the inevitable conflicts that take place within them. Achinstein experienced this first hand in Chicago where local school committees had been formed to provide governance for Chicago’s public schools. Having lived near Chicago during those years, I discovered some of what Achinstein found, that in many neighborhoods parents and teachers were wholly unprepared to lead their schools. They may have had strong convictions on what should take place in their schools, but they had little preparation on how to accomplish their goals. Within many of these schools, teachers worked in teams to design the best educational experiences for their students, but agreement on means and ends would put some teachers at odds with others. This did not surprise Achinstein but gave her concern that conflicts were often left unattended or ignored. A regret over not exploring the basis for a disagreement with a colleague at Thurgood Marshall Middle School helped form the basis for the study Achinstein conducted at two California middle schools.
Washington Middle School and Cesar Chavez Middle School have a diverse mixture of students with the highest percentage in both being Latino, 37 percent and 44 percent respectively. Guidelines for the diversity of the student body at Chavez are set by a consent decree signed by the school district and the NAACP in 1982. Chavez worked at having an equally diverse teaching staff. The Washington Middle School teaching staff was predominantly white and female. Both schools were committed to educational reform, providing students with better teaching and hence, higher learning. Both schools used some form of community building and teaming to achieve their reform goals, but here is where the similarities end. In analyzing her case studies, Achinstein works hard at sharing what she learned about the teaching communities in each school, from the rather obvious elements to the subtleties that help us understand what leads to a sense of community in the schools.
The results of the studies bring to light contrasting philosophies between the two teaching staffs that are eerily textbook in their differences. One teacher community sees education as the transmission of knowledge to increase participation in the status quo and the other favors education as a means for transforming and improving society. It is the stuff of a basic course in educational foundations. Washington Middle School has a very stable staff of teachers who, in many cases, have become personal as well as professional friends. On issues related to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and classroom discipline they tend to be conflict-avoidant and those who dissent or criticize are labeled “resisters.” This includes children and parents. If a child is disruptive or a parent does not agree with the teachers, they are excluded from the “community.” There is an external locus of control at play in that outsiders, not members of the community, cause problems. Achinstein estimates that 30 percent of the students are negatively affected by this attitude. Educational reform is defined as raising student achievement, demonstrated by higher test scores. Students with behavior problems are referred out of the classroom. There is a “country club” mentality that rewards conformity at Washington. Efficiency in decision-making is prized, and there is an attitude that consensus equals safety. Dissension is identified with undue risk-taking and best practices tend to be knowable, fixed, and identifiable by the majority.
If Washington Middle School prefers a country club uniformity to community, Cesar Chavez Middle School prefers the diversity of a carnival. As part of the 1982 consent decree, the teachers and administrators at Chavez signed a document based on 11 philosophical tenets that committed them to meeting the needs of diverse students and promoting equity in education. Thus, the ends are carved in stone, but the means can be continuously negotiated. At Chavez, teaming and collaboration take place in a climate that supports a certain level of conflict and challenge. There is a belief that more creative solutions can come from dissension and intense discussion. The heterogeneous teaching staff at Chavez Middle School supports this risk-taking approach. The ethnic and racial mix among the teachers makes it necessary for many voices to be heard and creates an understanding of how multiculturalism can influence decision-making. The teachers believe they have an obligation to model, for the students and their families, how multiculturalism can be a positive and transformative influence on American society. Of course, there are drawbacks. The teachers complain that every decision takes longer to achieve and closure is not always obvious. And there has been a relatively high turn over rate among the teaching staff at Chavez, which constantly introduces new voices to the debates and limits stability in all areas of educational practice. Perhaps most importantly, the teachers at Chavez do not ignore under-achieving students. They demonstrated, in this case study, that they were willing to implement experimental and controversial measures in their attempts to improve learning among African American students. Unlike the teachers at Washington who tended to put the responsibility for failures on students and parents, Chavez teachers were willing to put a lot of the responsibility on themselves.
An important yet subtle difference in the two schools was the attitude of the principal. Like his faculty, the principal of Washington admitted upfront his distaste for conflict and his desire to avoid it. In contrast, the principal of Chavez, during most of Achinstein’s study, saw value in naturally occurring conflicts, and she believed it led to better decisions overall. Mirroring the high turnover rate of faculty at Chavez, Achinstein reports that there were four different principals between 1989 and 1997. This, no doubt, influenced the feeling of instability voiced by the Chavez teachers. While not a major focus of this study, the role of leadership in community should not be overlooked.
After a thorough review of findings in the two case study sites, Achinstein provides a comprehensive analysis building upon the reviews she introduced prior to her discussion of both schools. While conflict is a natural aspect of community, proponents of community-in-schools either did not predict it or gave it little attention. Once she got hold of it, Achinstein was not about to let it go. In particular, she finds two strands of communitarianism: traditional and democratic, in which to ground Washington and Chavez Middle Schools. The discussion in the final chapter provides a realistic perspective to Achinstein’s investigation. In her words:
This study challenges us to transform the current dichotomization of unity and diversity. It is a false dichotomy that places them in opposition or imagines that one cancels the other out. Given the reality of our multicultural society, we can no longer afford to be nostalgic about a homogeneous past. Neither fusion nor complete individualism is the answer. Rather, communities must include individualism, group affiliation, diverse cultures and beliefs, along with a framework of shared purposes. (p. 151)
Achinstein chose to focus on teacher professional communities and does not explore the use of community in classrooms where other myths are in need of illumination (Hobbs, 2002). But this text is an important read for those who would consider the development or study of community among teachers in schools. Those who teach should surely be willing to learn what the risks and benefits are before choosing to embrace a decision-making model. Those who investigate will benefit from Achinstein’s guidance.
Hobbs, S. (2002). The ties that (un)bind: Building community in the classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah.